Experimental manipulation of sponge/bacterial symbiont community composition with antibiotics: sponge cell aggregates as a unique tool to study animal/microorganism symbiosis


Correspondence: April Hill, Department of Biology, Univeristy of Richmond, Richmond, VA 23173, USA. Tel.: +1 804 484 1591; fax: +1 804 289 8233; e-mail: ahill2@richmond.edu


Marine sponges can harbor dense and diverse bacterial communities, yet we have a limited understanding of important aspects of this symbiosis. We developed an experimental methodology that permits manipulating the composition of the microbial community. Specifically, we evaluated sponge cell aggregates (SCA) from Clathria prolifera that had been treated with different classes of antibiotics to determine whether this system might offer novel experimental approaches to the study of sponge/bacterial symbioses. Microscopic analysis of the SCA demonstrated that two distinct morphological types of microbiota existed on the external surface vs. the internal regions of the SCA. Denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis and sequence analysis of 16S rRNA gene clone libraries indicated that we were unable to create entirely aposymbiotic SCA but that different classes of antibiotics produced distinctive shifts in the SCA-associated bacterial community. After exposure to antibiotics, some bacterial species were ‘revealed’, thus uncovering novel components of the sponge-associated community. The antibiotic treatments used here had little discernible effect on the formation of SCA or subsequent development of the adult. The experimental approach we describe offers empirical options for studying the role symbionts play in sponge growth and development and for ascertaining relationships among bacterial species in communities residing in sponges.